Posts by flares

I am a critic and researcher of sf, with interests in queer theory, postmodernism, psychoanalysis and other long words. I have various blogs.

Wow

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

I’d been recommended this a few years by a colleague who I don’t think read sf, but knew I did. I never got around to it until this summer, despite a pile of copies in Albatross House’s SILENT ZONE which is where I tend to work. Other friends liked his worked, and I often use those rather chunky quotation in lectures:

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Meh Fetishism

Seeing three exhibitions in one day was a mistake, but two were about to end and the third was next door to the first so I booked slots for Their Mortal Remains and Into the Unknown and shouted at the Science Museum website for not having the complete list of tickets. I allowed about two hours for the first — not enough as it happens — and booked at five for the the Barbican, which would give me an hour to do Robots and an hour to get across London.

I reckoned without the Victoria and Albert Museum’s crappy signage — it would be helpful to know the toilet is on a staircase and not easier accessed — and the Science Museum’s layout — the main lifts are out of action and you have to navigate around the block from lift B to the exhibition (not that lift B is obviously signed from what I assume are Lifts A and none of them have labels).

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And the Real Thing is the Best Thing Yet

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Some time ago I was doing some research into the history of Detroit, and read that this was an integrated city with little disturbances over racial lines. It was the heart of the American motor industry and then a music industry, which have since collapsed and moved elsewhere. Julien Temple’s extraordinary documentary Requiem for Detroit (2009) documents its collapse and attempts at reconstruction. Having done further research, I’m not sure what the author was talking about — and this film centres on a reconstruction of a devastating event at the heart of a disturbance, at the Algiers Hotel.

An illegal drinking venue is raided by largely white police men, arresting largely African American patrons. This leads to unrest on the streets, which the film labels a riot, over a number of days. An aspiring male vocal group, The Dramatics, have their performance cancelled just before they are due to go on, thanks to the curfew, and they try to find their way home. Larry Reed and Fred Temple book a room at a motel and try to pick up two white tourists, Julie Ann and Karen, who introduce them to Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard. Pollard fires a starter gun out of the window, attracting the National Guard, the police — including Philip Krauss, who has shot someone dead in the back — and a security guard, Melvin Dismukes. Krauss starts interviewing every one left in the motel, with sadistic glee, staging mock executions. Then things go really wrong. When the night is over, the white cops and Dismukes are put on trial, with an all-white jury.

There has been a certain amount of fuss about whether this was a story that Bigelow, as a white director can tell this story. It would be interesting to see a John Singleton or Spike Lee version, of this film, but cautious Hollywood rarely gives big budgets to African American directors. Equally, they rarely do so to women — Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and Wonder Woman being rare exceptions — so perhaps we should celebrate a woman being given a $34 million budget, although that is not huge. Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar, so perhaps has the chops to swing the gig for an African American director and act as producer; on the other hand she has had a lot of flops, in the arcane world of film accountancy her films are rarely in profit, making about three times the budget at best. At the moment, Detroit is a flop.

It is not an easy film to navigate, as we take a long time to get to the motel and then we have the aftermath to deal with. All of this is necessary. There are a bewildering range of characters in the first half hour, before the set piece kicks in, and this gives us a portrait of a city in crisis, if not the mundane every day life. The context of unrest in 1967 Detroit is sketched in with drawings and captions — the move of workers from the south to work in the car industry and the slow exodus of the white population (the words “white flight” are not used). We don’t get the fall out from Jim Crow laws, the Civil War and slavery, but that was more in the south anyway. We are told that change is inevitable, although it is not clear when or how. Bigelow slips between documentary footage and reconstruction.

In a sense the film is all reconstruction; we are told that it is not clear what happened, even with court testimony and the memory of survivors. Characters will be compressed into composites, dialogue will be invented, people were on their own. This matters because this is an event of political importance — but the story has to be told. There is violence, but we can’t be sure it is the right violence. Above all, we can never quite get into the heads of Krauss and his fellow cops — of what made them racist. Or to behave as they did. Their interrogation is tactical, but we don’t know who set that up.

Sometimes there is a sense of punches being pulled. John Boyega as Dismukes is a Good Man, and no doubt he is, but I wonder whether the actor is in danger of becoming a British Denzel Washington, a guarantor of uprightness. Equally, there are moments of good deeds by white people just in case we have wanted to insist #notallwhitemen. It is telling that the two central characters are played by British actors. Was it too much of a hot potato?

Bigelow has always been a director of contradictions, a female director who had tried to inhabit supposedly male genres, more likely to create meaty roles for men than women (but don’t forget Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1987)). Her background is in painting and film theory, with auteurial signatures of night shoots and neon lights, often viewed through smoke, but she has worked with and was married to James Cameron. She has worked in art house and television, with a small role in the extraordinary intersectional sf film Born in Flames, but she’s also had big budget. Repeatedly she makes radical films that end up with a whiff of neoconservatism — her vampire film Near Dark (1987) blurs boundaries of sexuality and gender, but white patriarchy and home wins out; her sf Strange Days (1995) has a female African American protagonist, but a white old man saves the day. Detroit was inspired by events in Ferguson, but the dots of true integration still not being achieved are not filled in.

I think this is a film to be seen — even if it’s not a film to like or enjoy — but perhaps on the level that a flawed attempt to tell a story is better than not to tell it. But perhaps the canvas of a thirteen part television series might have been more suitable.

Casey the Nietzschean Ghost

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

Your response to this film will depend on whether you can buy its central conceit: when a husband dies in a car accident he haunts his wife in a white sheet. In the next house along there is another ghost, in a rather more fetching design. The cumulative effect is it is not certain how seriously you are meant to take the film — is it a comedy, a tragedy, a bitter sweet comedy, a comedy with tragic overtones? Much of the film is in silence, the husband staring, first at his wife, and then at the various later, or perhaps earlier, inhabitants of the house. The cynic is me suspects that they could only afford Casey Affleck for a couple of days, and a stand in plays the ghost, but apparently it is him.

One of the incomers, present at a party, has a speech longer than all the other dialogue put together. Oddly, when a Spanish-speaking family move in, they are not subtitled — perhaps the ghost does not understand them — but the dead neighbour is.

Lowery works within an almost square ratio, something like 4:3, the same as used in silent films, and this adds a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings. The Curzon’s policy of not closing curtains — maybe there are no curtains — to cover the blank screen draws attention to the empty space outside the restrained diegesis. The ghost is often at the edge of the frame, just in view, with the camera held on the tableaux for longer than we are used to and certainly more than is comfortable. I was reminded of the great southern American photographer, William Eggleston, with his focus on the determinedly mundane. It is ordinary, but there is a beauty in it.

Whilst in Manchester By the Sea delayed the final revelation of what the trauma and guilt at the heart of the film was, this is more circumspect. There is tension between the married couple, over whether they should move or not, the chain of tragic events is less laid out for us. Whilst that film denied us catharsis, this one is even more frustrating of audience desires. The pace is glacial at first, but slowly builds, never less than watchable even as it toys with us. The mourning wife, Rooney Mara, binge eats a chocolate pudding, in spoonful after spoonful after spoonful and I hope this was achieved in a single take for the sake of her waist line.

It is not clear whether it is told in linear time — in a sense it isn’t, as we have flashbacks — but the years that the house lies empty should be stretching out from more or less the present, even as a modern metropolis encroaches on the house. They have laptops. Mobile phones. And we also loop back to pioneers. The film’s epigraph is taken from a Virginia Woolf story, “A Haunted House”:

”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.”

and Woolf repeatedly plays with duration in her work.

On a couple of occasions the husband loses patience with his squatters and haunts them — exploding light bulbs, throwing books around. We see some of the titles: A Farewell to Arms, some Nietzsche. They mean something. Probably. You may lose patience. You may surrender to the film. You should probably cry.

Underground, Overground

Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights (People’s History Museum, 25 February-3 September 2017)

I had a bit of a mooch around this, although I think that I spent an hour in here. It is an interesting example of history from below, curated by members of the Manchester LGBT+ community, which I suspect meant that things were selected that might otherwise have been missed. It also meant that there were overlaps between sections and probably gaps. There was probably more stuff from post 1968 than pre-1968, but it was good to see a copy of the Wolfenden Report. There were posters, badeges, photos, fanzines, newsletters, tickets and so on.

It was hard to navigate, although perhaps it made sense to have a section on protest and another on Queers of Color, even if Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners weren’t in the former section. There was a front page of a tabloid covering Sue Lawley’s experience of a protest on the Six O’Clock News but a photo of four of the five lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords. The context for this, Clause 28, is explained elsewhere with a copy of Jennie Lives with Eric and Martin, the book that triggered Tory homophobia.

I suspect the last thing that you are likely to see is a timeline, from 1533 or thereabouts, to the present day, noting significant moments in LGBT+ history and law. The temptation is to go round again, slotting everything into its rightful place, restoring the master narrative. Perhaps this needs to be avoided? Perhaps you can’t separate issues of ethnicity and suffragism out from each other, although the exhibition does. I think I would have placed this first, or on the way in.

For the third time this year, I saw some Claude Cahun photographs — in two parts of the exhibition — although this was clearer than the Sidney Copper Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery in suggesting Marcel Moore took them. Like the other two exhibitions, they insisted on naming them by birth name or deadnaming them. Did this need thinking through? Is it different from an artist going by a name other than their birth one?

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Meanwhile, upstairs in the main gallery you can see the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners banner. There’s also a group of photos covering the 1970s and 1980s music scene in Manchester, which overlapped with the queer communities. I overheard a group of young men discussing Queer as Folk and being nostalgic about its depiction of Manchester “even though I wasn’t there”.

I suddenly felt very old.

Estranger in an Estranged Land

The urinals flush before you use them.

At first I thought it was coincidence, but after the third time it was clearly enemy action. There’s some clean/dirt binary that’s being asserted, as if it senses me and thinks I’m … what?

IMG_2379The academic track here at Worldcon has explored the idea of ostranenie as outlined by Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 (actually 1913), which I suspect we know in the sf field due to Darko Suvin’s appropriation of Brecht’s term alienation in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, a book I am singularly failing to review. From Simon Spiegel’s paper I learned — or was reminded — how different the two versions of estrangement are. One becomes more about the familiar becoming strange and the other is more about the strange becoming normalised. Sf is the dialectical pull of both.

But you can experience a sense of estrangement in a new city, especially one in a different country. Dublin and Melbourne are perhaps the oddest — the Anglophone street names and shop fronts could kid you that you are in Liverpool or Glasgow, but the street furniture and the police and the money remind you that you are not in Kansas any more. Bergen is less strange, because Norwegian reminds you forcefully that this is not Britain, although frankly most of the locals speak English better than what you do. There are linked root words, that help you to begin to puzzle your way through. A lot of the shops are different, although we share some chains.

But Finnish is an Uralic language — linked to Estonian and another half dozen or so languages rather than the rest of European grammars and vocabularies, with the exception of Hungarian. Sometimes the dual translation of Sweden on signs offers a clue — “gata” becomes “katu”, and “gata” is close to the “gate” used in street names in towns such as York, but that’s about as far as it goes.

But there also cultural differences that can throw you. As in Norway, the doors open outward rather than in — which you think must be difficult if someone is on your step and you want to let them in. On the other hand, perhaps it is harder to force your way in.

I keep having to remember that they drive on the wrong side of the road — although naturally that word “wrong” is itself wrong. But over the decades you learn to look in a particular direction before you cross a road — and this is especially troubling when a tram might be in the other direction. This moment of estrangement is one that reminds you that things can be otherwise — we follow a convention.

At pedestrian crossings, I find myself crossing even when the indicator is red. There is nothing coming, and cars seem to be able to turn across a green man anyway. Red light — look both ways — look at red light — look both ways — cross. Feel hard stares from the Finns who are still waiting. I am being disapproved of. Or perhaps I am projecting.

I have committed the crime of jaywalking. It seems to be against the law. I break this convention in the UK all of the time — although less so when in an unfamiliar town, as I don’t know the light sequences on junctions which can be learned when you repeatedly cross the same road. “Are you sure you aren’t breaking the law?”, an English person asked me, and unless I’m missing a vital part of the Road Traffic Acts, I don’t seem to be. We are considered mature enough to judge when to cross.

The Finns have internalised a certain kind of practice, which is a law, whilst I am subverting and breaking it. It has never occurred to me — as far as I can recall — to think that I am breaking the system of traffic indicators in the UK, but here I am violating a prohibition.

And so it seems as if I am walking around in a state of almost constant estrangement, and the interesting thing will be whether the next time I use a British toilet, I will assume it is broken because it doesn’t flush as I arrive. But tomorrow I will feel as if an object is judging me or being generous.

Upon this Rock

The Stone Church, Temppeliaukio

If I were called in.
To construct a religion.
I should make use of water.

I don’t do God.

I don’t believe in her. Or him. Or them. Or zie…

Or, perhaps, if there is a transcendent being, I think they have better things to do with their time.

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